Tips to Prevent Swimmer's Ear & When to Seek Help

Woman with earache
Getty Images/Peter Dazeley

Home remedies are best used to prevent swimmer's ear or to treat it only if you are unable to see a physician right away. If this is your situation, the following information and home remedies should be helpful. It should be noted, however, that any time you can see a doctor for symptoms of swimmer's ear you should. Untreated swimmer's ear can lead to complications, such as malignant otitis externa.

There are also other conditions that can cause similar symptoms to swimmer's ear, so swimmer's ear is best diagnosed by a doctor.

What Is Swimmer's Ear?

Swimmer's ear is generally caused when water that contains bacteria enters the ear. It can sometimes also be caused by a fungus in the water, or even more rarely, a virus. Most cases of swimmer's ear seem to be caused by the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Treatment for swimmer's ear is intended to target these culprits. When you see a doctor you will usually be given a course of antibiotic ear drops. Home remedies for swimmer's ear are thought to either kill the infection or inhibit its growth. 

Symptoms of Swimmer's Ear

Symptoms of swimmer's ear include an itchy, red, or swollen ear canal, ear pain that gets worse when you touch or wiggle your ear, and sometimes drainage of fluid from the ear.

You should never try to use home remedies if:

  • You have drainage from your ear, (this could mean you have a ruptured ear drum)
  • You are not sure if swimmer's ear is causing your symptoms
  • You have symptoms that indicate the infection may have spread, such as swelling and redness down the neck or the base of the skull.

If you are confused, you may wish to learn about:

Possible Home Remedies for Swimmer's Ear (and What to Avoid)

Some websites and doctors recommend using hydrogen peroxide drops in the ear as a home remedy for swimmer's ear. It should be noted, however, that hydrogen peroxide has fallen out of favor with many health care professionals because studies have shown that it kills not only a wide spectrum of germs but healthy cells as well.

Even some credible websites advise using drops, (such as vinegar, alcohol, or hydrogen peroxide), to manage swimmer's ear. While safe and beneficial for most people, these drops can, if used by the wrong person, or under the wrong circumstance, damage the ears. If you don't have any of the conditions listed below and can't get to a doctor you may want to try one of these substances.

Never use ear drops that have not been prescribed by a doctor if you have symptoms of a ruptured eardrum or have previously had ear surgery, including a tympanoplasty or myringotomy (insertion of synthetic ventilation tubes), which may have affected the condition of your ear drum.

Ear Wax Blockage Complicates Swimmer's Ear Treatment

Sometimes ear wax, or swollen tissue, can be blocking the ear canal.

This makes any home remedy virtually impossible. At any rate, an infection this severe would not likely respond to home remedies anyway. When you see a doctor, they can look in your ears using an otoscope and determine whether or not the ear canal is open and ear drops can be given.

If there is a wax blockage, the doctor can usually remove it. If the ear canal is blocked by swollen tissues, something called a wick can be inserted by your doctor so that ear drops can be safely administered. In rare cases, swimmer's ear may need to be treated with oral or I.V. antibiotics.

When to See Your Doctor for Swimmer's Ear

The bottom line when considering a home remedy for swimmer's ear is that it's always better to see your doctor.

If circumstances do not permit, you can try the measures listed above at home, but if symptoms get worse or do not improve in 48 to 72 hours, it is very important that you see a health care professional to prevent complications of swimmer's ear. For more information on the prevention and treatment of wwimmer's Ear read:

5 Home Remedies to Prevent Swimmer's Ear

If you have had swimmer's ear in the past, you are more likely to develop it again and should be diligent in practicing good ear hygiene when you swim. The following things can be done at home to prevent swimmer's ear and to treat an extremely mild infection.

  • Use a blow dryer on the lowest setting to dry your ears thoroughly after swimming or bathing.
  • Never stick a foreign object, such as a Q-tip or a fingernail into your ear.
  • Be careful not to scratch your ear or get cuts on your ear.
  • Mix a solution of half white vinegar and half rubbing alcohol and put a few drops in your ears after swimming or bathing.
  • Wear earplugs when swimming and bathing (these can be purchased over-the-counter at most stores).

Sources:

American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery. Clinical Practice Guidelines Acute Otitis Media. www.entnet.org/.../getfile&pageid=37325

Medline Plus. Swimmer's Ear. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000622.htm

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